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Lessons from the longest study on human development | Helen Pearson

Lessons from the longest study on human development | Helen Pearson


Today I want to confess something to you, but first of all I’m going to ask you
a couple of questions. How many people here have children? And how many of you are confident that you know how
to bring up your children in exactly the right way? (Laughter) OK, I don’t see too many hands
going up on that second one, and that’s my confession, too. I’ve got three boys; they’re three, nine and 12. And like you, and like most parents, the honest truth is I have
pretty much no idea what I’m doing. I want them to be
happy and healthy in their lives, but I don’t know what I’m supposed to do to make sure they are happy and healthy. There’s so many books
offering all kinds of conflicting advice, it can be really overwhelming. So I’ve spent most of their lives
just making it up as I go along. However, something changed me
a few years ago, when I came across a little secret
that we have in Britain. It’s helped me become more confident
about how I bring up my own children, and it’s revealed a lot about
how we as a society can help all children. I want to share that secret
with you today. For the last 70 years, scientists in Britain have been following
thousands of children through their lives as part of an incredible scientific study. There’s nothing quite like it
anywhere else in the world. Collecting information
on thousands of children is a really powerful thing to do, because it means we can compare
the ones who say, do well at school or end up healthy
or happy or wealthy as adults, and the ones who struggle much more, and then we can sift through
all the information we’ve collected and try to work out why
their lives turned out different. This British study —
it’s actually a kind of crazy story. So it all starts back in 1946, just a few months
after the end of the war, when scientists wanted to know what it was like for a woman
to have a baby at the time. They carried out
this huge survey of mothers and ended up recording the birth
of nearly every baby born in England, Scotland
and Wales in one week. That was nearly 14,000 babies. The questions they asked these women are very different than the ones
we might ask today. They sound really old-fashioned now. They asked them things like, “During pregnancy, did you get your full extra ration
of a pint of milk a day?” “How much did you spend
on smocks, corsets, nightdresses, knickers and brassieres?” And this is my favorite one: “Who looked after your husband
while you were in bed with this baby?” (Laughter) Now, this wartime study
actually ended up being so successful that scientists did it again. They recorded the births
of thousands of babies born in 1958 and thousands more in 1970. They did it again in the early 1990s, and again at the turn of the millennium. Altogether, more than 70,000 children
have been involved in these studies across those five generations. They’re called the British birth cohorts, and scientists have gone back
and recorded more information on all of these people
every few years ever since. The amount of information
that’s now been collected on these people is just completely mind-boggling. It includes thousands
of paper questionnaires and terabytes’ worth of computer data. Scientists have also built up
a huge bank of tissue samples, which includes locks of hair,
nail clippings, baby teeth and DNA. They’ve even collected 9,000 placentas
from some of the births, which are now pickled in plastic buckets
in a secure storage warehouse. This whole project has become unique — so, no other country in the world
is tracking generations of children in quite this detail. These are some of the best-studied
people on the planet, and the data has become
incredibly valuable for scientists, generating well over 6,000
academic papers and books. But today I want to focus
on just one finding — perhaps the most important discovery
to come from this remarkable study. And it’s also the one
that spoke to me personally, because it’s about how to use science
to do the best for our children. So, let’s get the bad news
out of the way first. Perhaps the biggest message
from this remarkable study is this: don’t be born into poverty
or into disadvantage, because if you are, you’re far more likely
to walk a difficult path in life. Many children in this study
were born into poor families or into working-class families that had
cramped homes or other problems, and it’s clear now
that those disadvantaged children have been more likely to struggle
on almost every score. They’ve been more likely
to do worse at school, to end up with worse jobs
and to earn less money. Now, maybe that sounds really obvious, but some of the results
have been really surprising, so children who had a tough start in life are also more likely to end up
unhealthy as adults. They’re more likely to be overweight, to have high blood pressure, and then decades down the line, more likely to have a failing memory,
poor health and even to die earlier. Now, I talked about what happens later, but some of these differences emerge
at a really shockingly early age. In one study, children who were growing up in poverty were almost a year behind
the richer children on educational tests, and that was by the age of just three. These types of differences have been found
again and again across the generations. It means that our early circumstances
have a profound influence on the way that the rest
of our lives play out. And working out why that is is one of the most difficult questions
that we face today. So there we have it. The first lesson for successful life,
everyone, is this: choose your parents very carefully. (Laughter) Don’t be born into a poor family
or into a struggling family. Now, I’m sure you can see
the small problem here. We can’t choose our parents
or how much they earn, but this British study has also struck
a real note of optimism by showing that not everyone
who has a disadvantaged start ends up in difficult circumstances. As you know, many people
have a tough start in life, but they end up doing very well
on some measure nevertheless, and this study starts to explain how. So the second lesson is this: parents really matter. In this study, children who had engaged,
interested parents, ones who had ambition for their future, were more likely to escape
from a difficult start. It seems that parents and what they do
are really, really important, especially in the first few years of life. Let me give you an example of that. In one study, scientists looked at about 17,000 children
who were born in 1970. They sifted all the mountains of data
that they had collected to try to work out what allowed the children
who’d had a difficult start in life to go on and do well
at school nevertheless. In other words, which ones beat the odds. The data showed that what mattered
more than anything else was parents. Having engaged, interested parents
in those first few years of life was strongly linked to children going on
to do well at school later on. In fact, quite small things
that parents do are associated with good
outcomes for children. Talking and listening to a child, responding to them warmly, teaching them their letters and numbers, taking them on trips and visits. Reading to children every day
seems to be really important, too. So in one study, children whose parents were reading
to them daily when they were five and then showing an interest
in their education at the age of 10, were significantly less likely
to be in poverty at the age of 30 than those whose parents
weren’t doing those things. Now, there are huge challenges
with interpreting this type of science. These studies show
that certain things that parents do are correlated with good
outcomes for children, but we don’t necessarily know
those behaviors caused the good outcomes, or whether some other factor
is getting in the way. For example, we have to take
genes into account, and that’s a whole other talk in itself. But scientists working
with this British study are working really hard to get at causes, and this is one study I particularly love. In this one, they looked at the bedtime routines
of about 10,000 children born at the turn of the millennium. Were the children going to bed
at regular times, or did they go to bed
at different times during the week? The data showed that those children
who were going to bed at different times were more likely
to have behavioral problems, and then those that switched
to having regular bedtimes often showed an improvement in behavior, and that was really crucial, because it suggested
it was the bedtime routines that were really helping things
get better for those kids. Here’s another one to think about. In this one, scientists looked at children
who were reading for pleasure. That means that they picked up
a magazine, a picture book, a story book. The data showed that children
who were reading for pleasure at the ages of five and 10 were more likely to go on in school
better, on average, on school tests later in their lives. And not just tests of reading, but tests of spelling and maths as well. This study tried to control
for all the confounding factors, so it looked at children
who were equally intelligent and from the same social-class background, so it seemed as if it was the reading
which really helped those children go on and score better on those
school tests later in their lives. Now at the start, I said the first lesson from this study was not to be born into poverty
or into disadvantage, because those children tend to follow
more difficult paths in their lives. But then I said that parenting matters, and that good parenting,
if you can call it that, helps children beat the odds and overcome some
of those early disadvantages. So wait, does that actually mean, then,
that poverty doesn’t matter after all? You could argue it doesn’t matter
if a child is born poor — as long as their parents are good parents,
they’re going to do just fine. I don’t believe that’s true. This study shows that poverty
and parenting matter. And one study actually
put figures on that, so it looked at children
growing up in persistent poverty and how well they were doing at school. The data showed that even when their parents
were doing everything right — putting them to bed on time and reading to them every day
and everything else — that only got those children so far. Good parenting only reduced
the educational gap between the rich and poor children
by about 50 percent. Now that means that poverty
leaves a really lasting scar, and it means that if we really want
to ensure the success and well-being of the next generation, then tackling child poverty
is an incredibly important thing to do. Now, what does all this mean
for you and me? Are there lessons here
we can all take home and use? As a scientist and a journalist, I like to have some science
to inform my parenting … and I can tell you that when
you’re shouting at your kids to go to bed on time, it really helps to have
the scientific literature on your side. (Laughter) And wouldn’t it be great to think that all we had to do to have
happy, successful children was to talk to them,
be interested in their future, put them to bed on time,
and give them a book to read? Our job would be done. Now, as you can imagine, the answers aren’t quite
as simple as that. For one thing, this study
looks at what happens to thousands and thousands
of children on average, but that doesn’t necessarily say
what will help my child or your child or any individual child. In the end, each of our children
is going to walk their own path, and that’s partly defined
by the genes they inherit and of course all the experiences
they have through their lives, including their interactions
with us, their parents. I will tell you what I did
after I learned all this. It’s a bit embarrassing. I realized I was so busy working, and ironically, learning and writing about this incredible
study of British children, that there were days when I hardly
even spoke to my own British children. So at home, we introduced talking time, which is just 15 minutes
at the end of the day when we talk and listen to the boys. I try better now to ask them
what they did today, and to show that I value
what they do at school. Of course, I make sure
they always have a book to read. I tell them I’m ambitious
for their future, and I think they can be happy
and do great things. I don’t know that any of that
will make a difference, but I’m pretty confident
it won’t do them any harm, and it might even do them some good. Ultimately, if we want happy children, all we can do is listen to the science, and of course, listen to our children themselves. Thank you.

100 comments on “Lessons from the longest study on human development | Helen Pearson

  1. The cycle of poverty is just low IQ parents passing on low IQ genes. This ensures poor performance at school, low paying jobs and poor health/diet choices.

  2. I find this talk manipulative. Apparently 'good parenting' closes 50% of the upwards mobility gap between 'rich' and 'poor', then she attributes the rest to poverty with no evidence. What about iq, or culture?

  3. Children need a father and a mother, love, attention and guidance and they'll be fine..

    Inequalities will come from someplace else: genes.

    A just society will therefore always inequality of result…however this doesn't mean we shouldn't try to maximize EVERYONE's potential..

  4. What a misleading conclusion – that poverty makes children do worse at school! It would be more rationally to reason this with the fact, that their parents got into poverty probably not by chance, but thanks to properties of their characters, which tend to be inherited. And hence cause offsprings to go same hard path.

  5. People here commenting like "oh snap what a waste of time" but seriously pay attention to the current level of lack of empathy and support for the next generation and others. If you believe in that sarcasm your throwing out than I hope you take it home and think not for just your families but others as well.

  6. Great talk! Thank you! One question though. How much is this study applicable to other cultures? What if it only works for individualistic protestant or catholic dominated societies and for other, say collectivistic or non-protestant, cultures the same parenting would produce completely different outcomes?

  7. MANY children in poverty also have abusive parents which compounds the problem severely. There are no easy escapes or alternatives for them.

  8. The greatest "studies" ever done oon ANY child? ..
    Was,is ..and ALWAYS HAS BEEN ..
    The MOTHERS WHO SHUT OFF GOVERNMENT CURRICULUM ..
    AND TAUGHT THEIR OWN CHILDREN FROM THEIR GUT..
    TO SEE THRU THE EYES OF GOD ..
    AND NOT THRU THE EYES OF SOCIETY .
    THAT'S A FACT..THAT'S A FACT..
    I RAISED FOUR.
    AND ALL OF THEM?..BLOW PEOPLES MINDS N HEARTS AWAY..
    BY HOW EMPATHETIC COMPASSIONATE INTELLIGENT THEY ALL ARE..THEY WERE NEVER HIT(SPANKED)..
    THEY NEVER FOUGHT ..
    THEY NEVER ARGUED.
    AND they are all between 25-30.
    And i was a single mom.
    Worked 3part time jobs for decades .
    Never underestimate the power of a child's spirit nor mind..
    Poverty ?..doesn't have zero to do with the heights that the children of today ?..grasp and climb..like nobody's business ..
    That's a FACT..
    I'm living it..
    They are living it .
    I pray A LOT..I MEDITATE A LOT.
    I BELIEVE
    ALL OUR YOUTH ?!
    ARE THE FUTURE OF THIS PLANET'S HEALTH AND WELL BEING.
    Peace ..

  9. The parents who make their children read are on average already more intelligent than those who don't. So I believe their children do better not only because reading helps your devolepment but also because they already have a big advantage over others due to genes.

  10. These studies should control for IQ. A child from a low IQ and poverty household is not likely to do well giving the impression that it's the household and parents that were to blame.

  11. It gives me hope that all the people who think this is obvious act on it when they have children because there are alot of people who dont know this stuff and still think they can have a child without problems

  12. I was born in the UK in the 70's.
    Adopted at a few months.
    Aged 7 yrs my adopting mother passed away. Raised under the poverty line until I was old enough to work full time after leaving school at 15. Experinced depression treated with AD's on three occasions during my life. I often wonder if my life would have been different had my situation been 'better'. But I know it woke me up and whilst I could have had a more 'ideal' upbringing I have realised that is has meant I'm now laid in bed writing this at 11.47 am and when I get up have a shower and keep working on my latest album, (working title "mental health matters" ) I m grateful for the hard lessons about life I learned via my experiences all before I was 8 yrs old.
    This is what I'm doing now…

    www.iamalphagaut.org

  13. I think it might be a little bit of hubris to think that we could look at people's lives and distill everything down to" well this is where they went wrong"

  14. I swear some right-wingers do actually credit themselves with acquiring the right parents. They start on the twentieth mile and act like they ran the marathon. There are large elements of society who will not only not find this stuff regarding what is essentially privilege obvious, but who will dispute it loudly. And these people run the country and the world. This data could be politically useful for those of us who are activists.

  15. There's a vicious cycle. Parents who are economically distressed, working three jobs to make ends meet, maybe they are single parents, have less time to spend with their kids. This is how an underclass forms in the first place. It's one consequence of the way capitalism works. Ironic that the fiscal policies, or lack thereof, of right-wing governments only sustain the situation. The right-wing have no desire to rectify the unfairness. Especially those who form the establishment. Although seemingly even some of those who suffer the most support the ideology. Apparently prepared to accept their place in some primal pecking order?

  16. Oh yeah I can see myself in that part of reading for pleasure. As a young boy I was reading nothing but encyklopedias. I can say during the primary school I was miles away from my classmates in terms of general knowledge and understanding of science such as math and physics… (Now I will continue with a hypothesis) Once entering highschool and starting playing PC games my adventage was still there but it was not beeing looked after anymore. By reading encyklopedias at early age I taught myself an understanding of science and earned knowledge. When I was choosing an university there were this obvious option or artist one (I am very creative). Now at university I can see myself with an interest in knowledge and knowing interesting thigs. But I really struggle with the necessery opposite like hardcore science, math, beeing rigorous etc. CONCLUSION: seem like at that young age we are capable to accept anything and resurrect interest very easily. This can end in all-life-long focus (top scientist, athletes) or kind of hide your true path (like in my cas). Wow so interesting to analyze myself 😀

  17. You could get lost by the sound of her voice. eloquent, engaging, and just plain intelligent sounding.

    too bad there's absolutely no new content and all this is rudimentary knowledge…

  18. i wonder if there are differences between siblings about their life when they grow up although they might get the same parents and education, especially in families with many sisters and brothers.

  19. why her sound very clear and easy to understand for non english native like me ?
    I known she is british but what about ?

  20. While I agree that there weren't probably a lot a new findings in this talk, I still find it highly important. Most parents don't do these activities with their kids, for many reasons, chief among them the stressful modern way of life. The takeaway here is not some completely new insights, the takewaway is: take a little bit more time for your kids (that is the one thing the speaker changed in her own life!), talk with them, listen to them, read with them, go on a trip to the zoo, or whereever…. there is no need to send you kids to dozens of classes and early language courses, there is no need to spend tons of money on expensive toys, schools, etc…. just spend some more time in meaningful activities with your kids. And that is a very uplifting message IMHO

  21. This video is more than wonderful, a lecture that made me feel influenced and motivated a lot, I can not say how I felt and what?! But I can say motivational words and very wonderful.. ooh my god 😍😍

  22. Just an empathy speech that I have wasted about 13 minutes on it just to learn parents matter which we already knew but let me tell you the fact about my life because my parents do not even know a bit English or Korean or they have not struggled to raise me up in a good way and give me better education while they have not got any education but where I am now is so impressive and how I am working and traveling around the world so don’t tell me that family matter because I know more people who raised up in a poor and homeless families but so successful in their school life. I cannot just tell how wasteful and incorrect speech it is but yeah it is better to read a book for your children and spend time with them of course but please don’t generalize them or tell them to fix something which is not even in/on their hand…..

  23. It's so depressing that after so many tran-sgenerational studies the only thing they concluded is to listen and communicate with children. I can understand the anti-intellectual sentiment that gave rise to Donald Trump and Brexit; "intellectuals" are slow-witted dumbasses.

  24. Good talk, but genetics plays the largest largest role. Genetics even leads to the phenomenon of the "rich getting richer and poor getting poorer". Over generations, wealth and power compounds. Genetics is even a larger part of "Happiness" than you think. Even if an individual is healthy and wealthy, this does not guarantee a happy life.

    I am in favor of making this planet as comfortable and as hospitable to other humans as possible. No one chooses to be born. There is no free will. Hence there is a case for providing basic income for all human beings.

  25. Mental and or physical connections with the realization of where you can excel and then practice it with less obstacles, helps no matter where or who you're born to.

    And for that person and the people around them ability to support them unsarcastically and giving real truthful support and not generalized what they read about a generalized others is significant.
    And if the parents can realize how to encourage and support their kids with real understanding and not media collected bull is important.
    As well as the parents being or having been down the path their kids are. And not bombastically just saying yes I know exactly what you're going through.
    Quit lying and help your kids you ignorant breeders. Quit creating burden to society and earth through neglect, lying and whorification of reality.
    Some people instead of breeding actually know a little about how to raise a kid.
    Doesn't mean they should be giving lectures to the illiterate or whoops were having a baby culture of pestilent ignorants.

  26. Blah blah blah. Very banal things and no useful information has been said. Really waste of time. All we know that we must devote our time to our children, reading is good and be rich is a great thing!

  27. I dislike this talk because she keeps repeating the same things, sometimes being obvious and sometimes a bit discriminating.
    We didn't need science or this woman to understand that loving and caring parents, regardless of their wages, can boost children talents or guide them to a better future.
    At the end of the talk, you don't learn anything new except that this Brit is particularly interested in poverty

  28. Cognitive science & other behavioural studies concur with these findings that children being born into poverty (barring anything like being born with FAS or something as equally as destructive) can have the capacity to do as well as more advantaged children if they have 3 basic needs met: (1) a loving caregiver who shares a great deal of time (like reading to them) with them & establishes an early and ongoing deep emotional bond (2) they get enough sleep (this is incorporated I having an established bedtime routine that ensures they are relaxed in bed from 9 -11 hours before they need to wake-ip) and  (3) they have the opportunities to receive adequate nourishment, education (i.e.: access to books and schools) and healthcare

  29. I cried when I listened to this. We grew up very poor. I am in my 40s now, and I suppose not doing too badly in life compared to where I started. But the effects of my childhood continue until now. Only I know what they are…

  30. Unbelievable ! I didn't know that life was easier and better when you were rich, healthy and beautiful, than poor, sick and ugly…

  31. Too much emphasizing on the one-of-a kind Britain's research or refered it as british study not just the study/research, she said it again and again that i almost doubt it she will get into the real content.
    And if it takes a decades of british study for you to realise and have quality conversation with your children more often… I dont know….. There might be more findings that overlooked too

  32. Even it does not seem visual after number of years of study. All the aspects of life is crucial, and parents and children should try their best to play out the game of life. It's not in ones hand to choose born to. Science without spirituality, and knowledge without conscience are destroying for human.

  33. hmm Steven Pinker (also on TED) said that the effect of parenting goes to zero after a few years…
    https://www.youtube.com/results?search_query=steven+pinker+parenting

  34. Add this to my favorites and watch again later lists. And watch it from time to time just as a simple reminder. Thank you! Ps. I also watched again and took notes.

  35. Helen Pearson (the presenter) published a wonderful book about this called the ‘Life Project’ . An absolute beauty of a book

  36. Let me add one thing, "every children born with unique identity, help to invent themselves. Don't fill whatever you like".

    Don't expect your kids to fulfill your hunger in life.

  37. She is saying what she think is so
    What’s reality based on fact without biased can be way different
    I don’t know either
    But I was born in Pakistan in middle of extremist but now I’m a scientist and a millionaire and what I conclude is it’s never the situation it’s what you do everyday when no one is there

  38. This speaker does not seem to understand that correlation does not equal causation… e.g. it could equally be that the genetic component of IQ could cause both parents to have poor employment outcomes (and therefore suffer from poverty), and also for their children to perform poorly at school – why always assume that nurture is the main effect?

  39. Quite a few misguided comments here. People don't seem to realise the impact actual science has on society's parenting, government funding, further research, etc.

  40. Wow, a whole F-ing 15 minutes for her kids! How sorry I feel for them. Her poor children. She doesn't say what exactly it is about being in poverty that is bad, so what ever it truly is, may be easy to fix, even when the income doesn't go up. So, no, this isn't a good Tedtalk, when all she does is relay the information already printed about a study, and doesn't give any real answers to any questions. She simply relays information, doesn't add to it.

  41. We can 'choose' our parents if we can accept that our last genetic advance was many millennia ago. That moment could even be when 'modern man' emerged.
    That was a period when we survived because of the presence of a large group of people with whom we had daily contact. That means there could be no isolated poverty, just shared group success. It also means there are many wiser eyes watching each child's progress. Hoping the child will become a better than average contributor to the viability of the entire group. A tiny bit simplistic because neighbouring tribes did many things like trade off the coming-of-age girls and boys and other complicating issues but they weren't stupid. A weaker transferee was of lesser value.

    Enter civilisation, organised religion, private property and the concept of marriage. In this model the entire home-making burden is placed on two adults. The protective eyes are distanced. Poverty or neglect is offered an opportunity. A secondary consideration is that women can no longer seek out the best genes for her babies, she has to put up with her husband's, well technically anyway.

    Therefore, if we are still within our core make-up that primitive creature we could abide by those essentials in this process. Arguably the most critical any species could be involved. The preparing of the best young adults possible to take over when we are gone. As such shouldn't we do what they did? Merely modernise it a little bit. Bring up infants and toddlers in beautiful purpose-built large creches with lots of helping hands. Then engaging them in all manner of adventures trying to lead them to discover their individual interests and passions till they walk and work on their own.

    I imagine the most resistance to the above will come from women who do not value Science as the most important resource we have. We know that the Neurotransmitters will drive children towards courage, resilience, inquisitiveness and achievement. All we need do is facilitate it.

    To prepare society for such changes we need all the power in the people's hands to effect intelligent use of what we have. Of this and many other unnecessary burdens.
    First (pinned) post and its primary comments for the gist of the idea. (10 minutes reading)

    https://www.facebook.com/Vision-Representation-A-Humanist-Government-262619170609120/

  42. Ms. Helen Pearson, this video is amazing and I completely agree that parenting certainly makes a huge difference. However, the rich will often be more successful because they can afford everything the poor kids cannot. The rich parents are able to provide their kids with the best tutors for as long as the child needs. They also pay private music and even dance lessons. These wealthy parents can afford everything to help their kids, at least, succeed socially and financially. Hopefully, they also provide great parenting and then their kids will be closer to perfect.

  43. There should be mandatory parenting classes, where parents-to-be are inundated with scientific data & research to help them raise their kids properly. For example, teaching people that smacking your kids is counterproductive; that your child's behaviour is YOUR RESPONSIBILITY until they're an adult, etc.

  44. dumbasses hear this and think its about bad parents instead of institutions and structural inequality that exist that leave kids behind.

  45. A little bit of knowledge about brain formation in the early years will tell you why 0-2 are critical and 3-8 is very very important.. get this wrong, and there can be no recovery – and high material wealth cannot overcome bad parenting in these early years… and is why you hear "but they came from a good home" – meaning there were materially well off, but had a bad outcome… for good parenting, the parents need not to be consumed by worries about money and security.. so people need "enough" money, and absolute wealth is not a guarantee of good childhood outcomes….

  46. I can’t believe this crap passes as science. These studies didn’t control for genes or IQ. Identical twin studies show twins raised apart are no more similar than twins raised together which means the shared environment has little to no impact on personality and IQ.

  47. Great subject material, thank you 🙂 Another Ted Talk on parenting, which I think is also brilliant – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=i_w5vfWPuMo&t=244s

  48. Noise Pollution is severely damaging. Please lock your car quietly with light flash Only.
    No Honk. It wakes people up and creates stressful noise. Thank you.

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